The Neurobiology of Fear; Mysteries of the Mind; Scientific American Presents; by Kalin; 8 Page(s)
Over the years, most people acquire a repertoire of skills for coping with a range of frightening situations. They will attempt to placate a vexed teacher or boss and will shout and run when chased by a mugger. Some individuals, though, become overwhelmed in circumstances others would consider only minimally stressful: fear of ridicule might cause them to shake uncontrollably when called on to speak in a group, or terror of strangers might lead them to hide at home, unable to work or shop for groceries. Why do certain people fall prey to excessive fear?
At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, my colleague Steven E. Shelton and I are addressing this problem by identifying specific brain processes that regulate fear and its associated behaviors. Despite the availability of noninvasive imaging techniques, such information is still extremely difficult to obtain in humans. Hence, we have turned our attention to another primate, the rhesus monkey (Macaca mulatta). These animals undergo many of the same physiological and psychological developmental stages that humans do, but in a more compressed time span. As we gain more insight into the nature and operation of neural circuits that modulate fear in monkeys, it should be possible to pinpoint the brain processes that cause inordinate anxiety in people and to devise new therapies to counteract it.